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Thursday, April 24, 2003

3G in Iridium's footsteps?

A news item in CNN today had me take a trip back to my KREC days. For a semester report submission, I embarked on an ambitious effort to put together a report on the Iridium project. After a few hundred sites(one of the best - Lloyd was an inspiration replying to my numerous emails in spite of his very busy schedule) and numerous meetings with some of the project folks at Motorola (partners to the Iridium venture), I had a colorful, detailed report that made quite an impression on my professors. The biggest impression however was left on me by this very brave gigantic effort to place 66 satellites and a couple spares in Low Earth Orbits(LEOs) so their footprint would cover every inch of earth. One wireless device reachable - anytime, anyplace from the summits of the Himalayas to the depths of the Pacific - every geek's dream come true. Drawing its name from the element Iridium (the initial plan was for 77 satellites and Iridium's atomic number is 77), the project was headed well off with most all satellite launches going as planned. I was especially awestruck by the multiple satellite (5) deployment in different LEOs using one Delta 2 rocket. Majestic exuberance of technology. So, when talks of the project dying surfaced I was very disappointed. Late 1999, Iridium LLC finally filed for bankruptcy.

Roll forward a few years: 3G emerged. Another ambitious idea with some commonalities to the Iridium project - both services required technology-specific devices that were expensive; both services would not be easily affordable, even if the provider was only trying to break-even; both would be targetting a narrow demographic - at least to start with. The backers of 3G had the Iridium project to look back at and cut their losses when they could; but they ventured on to burn over $125 billion dollars.

Iridium has since bounced back as Iridium Satellites Inc having bought over all of Iridium LLC's satellites worth $5 billion for $25 million. That translates to half a penny for every dollar spent. 3G meanwhile has made few inroads into Europe. Few, mostly the backers, expect it to succeed. Most else see history repeating itself. For now, 3G trickles on.


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